x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

India's ruling party in trouble after state elections

Analysts say the poor showing by the Congress party in the state elections will embolden fractious regional partners.

NEW DELHI // The ability of the Congress party to rule effectively, or even last its full term to 2014, is doubtful after its dismal performance in five state elections this week.

Analysts say the poor showing, particularly under the leadership of the dynasty heir apparent Rahul Gandhi, will embolden the fractious regional partners on which Congress relies for its coalition government.

Congress and its local allies fell spectacularly short of expectations in the most politically important state of Uttar Pradesh, which has a population about equal to that of Brazil or Pakistan.

It had also expected, but failed, to win the wealthy agricultural state of Punjab where for the first time since the state was created in 1966, the leadership failed to change hands at an election.

Congress failed to pass any significant legislation last year and now faces an even tougher task with allies more focused on their own state issues, and a stronger Hindu nationalist opposition in the Monsoon session of parliament that begins in June.

Despite opposition from coalition partners such as the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, the government barely pushed a controversial anti-corruption bill through the lower house of parliament, but it was quashed by the upper house.

A bill to allow direct foreign investment from retail giants such as Walmart and Tesco was shot down by the Trinamool Congress.

And attempts to create a national counter-terrorism centre was blocked by various states, again including West Bengal.

With its image as a leader further weakened and the failure of Mr Gandhi, Congress's problems will only get worse, says SS Rana, a former civil servant and political commentator.

"Definitely they will not be able to pass through any legislation again," Mr Rana said.

A special budget session of parliament, which was delayed for the elections, will convene soon.

It's not clear if the Congress allies and the Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will pass it.

And there is an election expected by the end of the year in the critical and communally divided state of Gujarat, ruled by the BJP prime ministerial hopeful Narendra Modi.

An expected strong showing by the BJP there would increase pressure for an early federal election.

Regional parties have played a prominent role in national coalition governments for decades, but in the past several years these parties are becoming powers in their own right.

They are winning outright majorities in their states with little or no backing from national parties, said Jatin Gandhi, the author of a book on Rahul Gandhi but no relation to the family.

"Look at Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Punjab," said Mr Gandhi. "All these states, including Uttar Pradesh now have regional parties at their helm."

He blamed the underperformance of national parties, including the BJP for the rise of regional parties.

"With the Congress constantly underperforming, with scams surfacing one after the other, with the economy slowing down and the BJP failing to come up with new ideas, it leaves the field open for a third front," said Mr Gandhi.

This has given rise to an ambitious group of dynamic outsiders with national leadership potential.

They include Mamata Bannerjee, 57, the chief minister of West Bengal; Jayalalithaa Jayaram, 64, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu; Akhilesh Singh Yadav, 38, in Uttar Pradesh; and Sukhbir Singh Badal, 49, in Punjab. The last two are sons of their states' chief ministers.

"These parties did extremely well on their own. Their leaders are extremely ambitious people," said Mr Jatin Gandhi. "Given a chance, they would want more political power."

Mr Gandhi said if this trend continued, India could soon see its first national government without the BJP or Congress.

"The way regional parties are performing, they are together paving the way for a non-Congress, non-BJP formation," he said.

Sonia Gandhi - the mother of Rahul and the Congress leader and de facto prime minister - and her son admit the party needs to reassess its position after the series of defeats.

"We will have to sit down and look at the situation and the results in every single state and then together work out a plan to correct the mistakes we have made," said Mrs Gandhi on Wednesday.

Most damaging to Congress is the declining popularity of its traditional leaders, the Gandhis.

Rahul, whose father was the assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, was the face of the party's campaign in Uttar Pradesh, and the election was to be a demonstration of his ability to lead Congress into the future.

His sister Priyanka also campaigned, in Amethi and Rae Bareily, the home constituencies of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. The party came a distant fourth.

"They [Rahul and Priyanka] were supposed to help the Congress party win the elections but they were not able to deliver that," said Mr Rana.

He believes this is a sign of the decline in popularity of the Gandhis, even within their own party.

"The 'stick with Gandhis' slogan is not working for everyone in the party," said Mr Rana. "There is diminished faith in them."

Mr Rana said the real test would come when the economic powerhouse of Gujarat went to the polls.

"That will be the ultimate deciding factor in what happens to the fate of the Congress party," he said.

 

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae